Saving Democracy - Can We? Will We?

Fall 2022 - by Zoom

Understanding Democracy: Historical and Comparative Benchmarks

Thursday, Oct 13, 2022

What is democracy? In his famous Gettysburg Address delivered in 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln identified key dimensions of democratic governance as government of, by and for the people. Building on this basic working definition of democracy, this lecture will explore different models and concepts of democracy. Using illustrative examples, the lecture provides a historical and comparative introduction into the varieties of democracy. It addresses structural tensions inherent to democracy (e.g. between majority rule and minority rights), different social foundations (e.g. “mono-” versus “multi-national” democracies) and organizing principles (e.g. “consensus” versus “majoritarian” democracy). These benchmarks will serve as the basis for putting Canadian democracy into perspective: A multi-national federal democracy in the “Westminster” tradition that has proven to be remarkably resilient since its formal establishment in 1867. Based on this review, the lecture will conclude with a short discussion about the prospects of Canadian democracy in light of contemporary challenges.

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Guides, Guardrails, and Good Behaviour: Setting Up Canada's Liberal Democratic System

Thursday, Oct 20, 2022

In large part liberal democratic systems endure when there are clear rules of the game. Canada’s initial set up to secure democratic representation and good government was no different. By borrowing the federal model from their southern neighbour and combining it with a system of parliamentary government, the authors of confederation were confident their new country would be well placed to protect democratic principles and ensure the representation of its citizens. This lecture aims to set out how the different pieces of our liberal democratic regime were put together, how they have evolved over time, assess their relative effectiveness, and ponder the challenges they currently face. The lecture concludes by suggesting that the Canadian system of government is a strong one, with relatively clear roles and lines of accountability. At the same time, the good (or honourable) behaviour required of those in power to adhere to the guides and guardrails of the system can ebb and flow, and this is where our democratic system may be most vulnerable to erosion.

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Indigenous sovereignty: A conversation on Indigenous Rights and self-determination

Thursday, Oct 27, 2022

This conversation will examine historic Crown-Indigenous relations with a focus on a new evolving Indigenous rights framework. All levels of government as well as the private and public sectors must recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Developing a pathway forward to improving relations is an incredibly challenging task that requires a paradigmatic shift in thinking about Canada, Indigenous Peoples, and the relationship between them. Moving from a historic era where the State had complete dominance and control over Indigenous Peoples, to recognizing and developing Canadian and International Indigenous right standards will take generations. This shift requires participating in difficult conversations that deconstruct Canada and Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous law and Seven Generation Philosophy asks us to consider the impacts of our actions and decisions on the future generations. Our great, great grandchildren who are not born yet are looking to us as leaders to lift this burden from them. If we wish to have a country and society where all citizens residing here have the best opportunity for health and well-being, we must commit to making this vision a reality.

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Donald Trump and the Survival (?) of Canadian Democracy

Thursday, Nov 03, 2022

Democracy is under attack almost everywhere. In North America, its survival is threatened by far-right extremist groups, accountable only to their motley collection of anarchists, white supremacists, Trudeau despisers, anti-vaxxers, hate mongers, anti-Semites, religious fanatics, anti-abortionists, neo-Nazis and assorted conspiracy nuts. They are abetted by a public that is largely oblivious to the threat, by voters too lazy to exercise their franchise, by social media that spread the lies that are the lifeblood of extremism – and by political leaders too timid to challenge the enemies of democracy.

This talk will focus on the challenges to democracy in Canada as seen through the prism of the American midterm elections on Nov. 8, five days after this session. Potentially the most significant midterms in modern U.S. history, they will be a barometer by which to measure the force of extremism in public life today.

Stevens will pose 4 questions and invite the audience to post responses via polling as the talk continues. Tentatively:

-Will Donald Trump, the disruptor-in-chief, run for President again in 2024?
-If he does, can the U.S. political system survive the experience?
-Is Joe Biden doomed to go down in history as a failed president?
-What message will the midterms send to Canada and Canadians?

As important as the results of these elections will be, the way they play out will be just as important.

The talk will give Canadian and American examples of political extremism, offer a few suggestions for countering anti-democratic forces, and conclude with a Q&A drawing on Poll responses to the 4 questions.

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Regulating Online Harms: The Challenges of Defeating Misinformation, Disinformation and Hate Speech

Thursday, Nov 10, 2022

Recent years have witnessed considerable concern over the rise of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech on social media. These ills threaten to erode basic democratic norms, impact the fairness of elections, and reduce or impair Canadians’ sense of attachment to the country and to each other. The federal government has promised legislation designed to deal with these online harms, but laws designed to address these problems can present a host of challenges. First, the sheer volume of content online means content-based regulation requires recourse to automated algorithms that can produce a lot of ‘false positive’ or ‘false negative’, leading to the real risk of government or regulatory overreach. Second, a desire to force social media companies to implement the restrictions may have the dual effects of letting governments off the hook for ensuring policies meet their objectives as well as further empowering private entities to control social discourse and to potentially impair other rights, like privacy. Finally, there are real risks to free expression if these policies are not properly tailored, not only for overreach or unintended consequences, but also for engagement, trust, and the Charter of Rights.

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The Limits of Institutional Reform in an Age of Populist Anger

Thursday, Nov 17, 2022

Canadians tend to hold relatively sanguine views about the health of their democratic system. In poll after poll, when asked whether they are satisfied with the way democracy works in their country, a solid majority will answer yes. This immoderate pride in our democracy stands in stark contrast to the corrosive distrust these same citizens display toward many of the institutional actors that work within our democratic system – political parties, most obviously, but also the media, Parliament, and the Prime Minister. My talk will examine whether two fairly common reform proposals – of ballot laws, to make the electoral system more proportional, and of the Senate, to make the upper chamber more representative and effective – might increase trust in some of our basic representative institutions and improve the overall democratic legitimacy of our polity. I will concentrate most closely on the issue of electoral reform, since I have had personal involvement in that dossier for more than three decades now (beginning with the Lortie Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Finance in 1989). The experience of the past three decades underscores the considerable obstacles that advocates of reform must overcome, but I will nonetheless try to make a case for the modest benefits of electoral and Senate reform. In a brief conclusion I will consider the possibility that institutional reforms are no longer sufficient to quell the roiling populist anger directed at the political elites, or “gatekeepers,” that is becoming such a prominent phenomenon in the liberal democracies, even the peaceable kingdom of Canada, as the recent experience of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” attests.

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Politics Beyond Politicians: Civic Engagement and Social Advocacy in Local Politics

Thursday, Nov 24, 2022

Scholars sometimes declare that “all politics is local politics” in the sense that all politics is rooted in place. Municipalities in Canada have the least constitutional recognition – and fundraising ability – of any level of government. Despite limited agency over federal and provincial decisions municipalities deal with the day-to-day consequences that arise from these decisions in areas like healthcare, infrastructure, migration, and housing. And in turn, local conflicts can shape policy decisions at the provincial, national and even international levels.

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The Future of Canadian Democracy

Thursday, Dec 01, 2022

Recently, a number of problems with Canadian democracy have become increasingly visible. From the rise of parties embracing white supremacist ideology and rejecting pandemic protections, platforming of these views, the increase in hate crimes, the convoy occupation in Ottawa, institutional violence toward unhoused and racialized people, to the low voter turnout in the recent provincial election, things look bleak. Examining these problems in light of the questions “can we, and will we, save democracy?’ I discuss a number of factors that created this climate in order to set out
a clearer picture of the problems we’re facing. I approach challenges to our current equals, rather than just trying to secure the most votes in order to “win.” These principles of equality appeal to our sense of justice and fairness and underpin our support for democracy as something worth having (and saving). I then discuss what we need for effective, and principled, community activism and engagement and the important ways this might shift the provincial, and federal, climate. To this end I focus on what we can do when democratic challenges seem so overwhelming. I discuss
actions we can all engage in to return our focus—and, ideally, our institutions—to these principles of justice, fairness, and equality.

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Past Lectures